Thursday, November 15, 2018

Movie Review: The Children Act

The Children Act *** / *****
Directed by: Richard Eyre.
Written by: Ian McEwan based on the novel by Ian McEwan.
Starring: Emma Thompson (Fiona Maye), Stanley Tucci (Jack Maye), Ben Chaplin (Kevin Henry), Fionn Whitehead (Adam Henry), Jason Watkins (Nigel Pauling), Nikki Amuka-Bird (Amadia Kalu QC), Rosie Cavaliero (Marina Green), Rupert Vansittart (Sherwood Runcie), Honey Holmes (Director / Producer), Anthony Calf (Mark Berner), Eileen Walsh (Naomi Henry), Nicholas Jones (Professor Rodney Carter).
The Children Act is a film that neatly – too neatly – is about the difference between what is moral and what is legal, and how messy that can become. When the film opens, Fiona Maye (Emma Thompson, terrific as always) is a Judge who has to make a terrible decision – a pair of conjoined twins needs to be separated or both will die. But if they separate them, one will die immediately. The parents don’t want the operation, but the hospital does? What is to be done? Her decision is a legal one she says, not a moral one. When she returns home, her longtime husband, Jack (Stanley Tucci) announces that he is going to have an affair. He still loves his wife, but she’s always too busy for him. They haven’t had sex in 11 months, and have essentially become siblings. He could have just had the affair, and covered it up – one of his major complaints is that she works constantly, so she may well have not noticed – but he didn’t want to lie about it. There is no question of the legality of the situation – adultery is not illegal – but there certainly is a moral one.
The two will come together in the aftermath of these two decisions when as a judge, Fiona once again has a difficult decision. A teenager, just a few months’ shy of his 18th birthday, Adam (Fionn Whitehead) is undergoing cancer treatment – and if he doesn’t get a blood transfusion during the process, he will almost certainly die. But he and his family is a devote Jehovah’s Witnesses, and do not believe in blood transfusion – that makes them unclean, and cannot be undone. If he were 18, he could make the decision himself. Since he is not, he cannot. Fiona listens to all the legal arguments in front of her – and then makes the strange decision that she wants to talk to Adam directly – to see what he has to say.
The film can neatly be divided in half – everything that leads up to the decision Fiona makes about Adam, and everything that happens after. I will say, that the first half of the film is significantly better than the second. It is here, when the movie is wrestling with complex questions of legality and morality – and you argue yourself into taking either position, both in the legal and martial arguments, Fiona is involved in. This part is intelligent, well-written, and extremely well-acted. Richard Eyre’s direction isn’t flashy – that precisely the point – but cold and almost clinical, as he if he is remaining neutral. (Spoiler alert). I don’t much think the second half of the film works nearly as well – as Adam, now recovered thanks to Fiona’a decision, starts to write her notes, and even somewhat stalking her – thinking of her as a savior of sorts. There is even an element of sexual tension between the two of them. Thompson pretty much single handedly saves this portion of the movie – as it is all about her own delusions about her career as they come crashing down around her. That is interesting – the plot mechanics, and scenes between her and Adam are not (End Spoilers).
The film is yet another based on an Ian McEwan novel – and while I haven’t read this one, I would know it was his work regardless. His novels – and the films based on them – are often better in their openings then their closings, better when people wrestle with whether or not to do something, than they are in dealing with the consequences of what was done (the exception – Atonement). Here, the first act is so strong, that I wanted something more from the second act – something the film cannot give, because is essence, it writes itself into a corner. It’s still a fine film in many ways – and a reminder of just how good Thompson can be – but it could, and should have, been more.

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